The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

The Unleashing of Nationalisms

Oct 2, 2023

This article is translated from the September 29 issue, #2878 of Lutte Ouvrière (Workers Struggle), the paper of the revolutionary workers group of that name active in France.

In a few days, the Azerbaijani armed forces have just crushed those of Nagorno-Karabakh, a small Armenian enclave that seceded from Azerbaijan three decades ago during the collapse of the Soviet Union. Tens of thousands of Nagorno-Karabakh residents immediately fled to take refuge in Armenia.

Azerbaijan seized upon a pretext—the death of soldiers in the explosion of a mine—to launch a lightning “anti-terrorist operation.” The 2020 war, won by Baku, had already greatly reduced the area of this enclave and broke the territorial continuity of Nagorno-Karabakh with neighboring Armenia. Now, the independence that Nagorno-Karabakh proclaimed in 1991 is over. But the war is not over because Baku has already announced that it intends to establish a corridor between Azerbaijan and the Azeri zone of Nakhchivan, landlocked between Turkey, Iran and Armenia. However, with the state of the borders resulting from the decomposition of the USSR, such a corridor can only open through and at the expense of Armenia. And, necessarily, it can only oppose it militarily.

This little piece of Europe, by its geographical location—the two Caucasian mountain ranges forming a bridge between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea—has always been a place of mixing of various populations between Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. It follows that the Caucasus is a mosaic of peoples who settled there at various times and mixed, or at least lived alongside one another.

With regard to Nagorno-Karabakh, the formation of the Soviet Union in the wake of the October 1917 revolution brought together Armenian populations in a territory distinct from Armenia, administratively attached to Azerbaijan, which surrounded it, but with significant autonomy. Above all, there were no state barriers to the movement of residents their freedom to come and go between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh or between Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan.

This situation applied to around 100 other peoples living in the USSR who had their own territory or who lived within administrative entities alongside another majority ethnic group without big problems. In any case, so long as Soviet Russia and then the USSR sought to give maximum rights to all national components of the population. With the installation of Stalinism at the turn of the 1930s, the bureaucracy that usurped the power from the working class formally maintained the inherited framework of the revolution, even if, on many occasions, Stalin and his regime stifled the aspirations of nationalities by deporting some from the Caucasus and elsewhere.

The implosion of the Soviet Union, desired by the heads of the bureaucracy, made the situation very quickly evolve in a tragic way. In Central Asia and the Caucasus, local heads of the bureaucracy sought to carve fiefs in “their” republic by presenting themselves as intractable defenders of the majority ethnic group, supporting them against the “center,” that is to say Moscow and against minorities living on their territory.

This is what happened from 1989—1990 in Azerbaijan, where the clan of the leader of the local Communist Party, Aliev, wanted to bring the Azeri population together by fomenting anti-Armenian pogroms in Baku and Soumgaït. Knowing what awaited them, the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh proclaimed their independence in December 1991, when the USSR ceased to exist. A war broke out, which left tens of thousands of people dead. In 1994 it led to a cease-fire, not even to a formally concluded peace, then the situation remained as it was, punctuated by regular clashes.

Armenian forces then gained territory to link Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia. Russia, which was in what it considered its area of natural influence and which more or less supported Yerevan, the Armenian capital, had troops there who guaranteed a certain status quo. But since 2014, Moscow has focused on Ukraine, which had chosen the western camp. And, with the current open war, Russia no longer has the strength or the will to assert itself in the Caucasus. Especially since, behind Azerbaijan, supporting it militarily and politically, there is Turkey, a member of NATO but also a partner to a certain extent with Moscow in the Ukrainian conflict.

Russian soldiers therefore remained armed against Baku’s troops. No one knows how this conflict will evolve. But one thing is certain: when it seemed frozen, it became a hot spot on the map again, once more. And the peoples of the region, whether Armenian, Azeri, or otherwise, can only bear the brunt of a fire that is likely to spread.